Monday, June 23, 2014

Ashik Kerib (1988)

"I am a minstrel, and this is my lute." 

These are some of the recurring lines in legendary Soviet-Armenian artist and filmmaker Sergei Parajanov's last completed film, "Ashik Kerib" (1988), which is yet another oddly whimsical odyssey, a fantastical folk tale, told in signature Parajanov style. This time, it is Parajanov's personal vision of Mikhail Lermontov's Turkish fairy tale of the same name.

The story of Ashik Kerib is a very simple lore of a poor minstrel, Kerib, who plays his lute, and is in love with Magul, the daughter of a rich merchant. But the merchant, obviously rejects Kerib and his family, calling them paupers. A vow is taken by the couple and Magul promises to wait for a thousand days and thousand nights for Kerib, as he decides to go away to get rich and return to claim her hand again.

Parajanov being Parajanov, adopts an esoteric style of narration in the vein of Azerbaijani folklore and his own cinematic tropes. So expect a disjointed, episodic screenplay in the form of tableaux vivants and vignettes, plenty of still images of cultural icons and artifacts, an abundance of music, dance and songs, colourful costumes, exotic set designs...the works! This film is far more outlandish in its storytelling approach in comparison to the earlier "The Legend of Suram Fortress", especially considering how simple the tale actually is.

"Ashik Kerib" is an exemplary work of a free-form narrative and goes all over with its idiosyncrasies and oddities as the events get increasingly bizarre. Very surprisingly, there is a generous dose of comedy as well, in an otherwise serious story, showcasing Parajanov's fine comical flair. For instance, the way Magul's father expresses his disapproval of Kerib by literally throwing up and jumping around like a clown, is as shocking a scene as it is funny! Adding to the comical tone are some hilarious absurdities and totally oddball characters that come and go in Kerib's strange adventure. This includes the outrageously funny Nadir Pasha with a fake moustache, and the mistresses by his side, carrying toy machine guns, in an off-the-wall anachronistic trope!

The magical realism in the tale exudes even more magical qualities, thanks to the touch of Parajanov who seems to be having a ball here. He probably was in a joyously playful mood when he wrote the film, but the child in him seems to be at its most energetic best, as seems the case in sequences such as these. It is very much likely that some of the sequences were improvised. An experiment in flippancy, incorporating unlikely humour and really going way over the top, Parajanov literally toys around with a multitude of ideas!

The dialog in the film is off-kilter and poetic as expected. It is never straightforward. In many of the sequences, characters speak, but their lips don't move. The voices are dubbed over, giving any scene a strange, surreal quality, as the characters appear to mime, and converse with their thoughts and expressions! This facet may seem off-putting to some, but it works exceedingly well in the film's favour, given its theatrical nature. Music dominates almost every episode. In fact, some of the vignettes only have music, songs and dance, but no dialog! The music is quite evocative of the Azerbaijan culture, as are the other visuals.

The emblematic pomegranates make their appearance at various junctures and even change their colours as per the mood reflected in a scene! When Ashik Kerib is falsely declared dead by the evil Kurshud-Bek, his mother wails, goes blind and just as that happens, the image on the screens starts to blur and pomegranates turn black! In another happier sequence that seems to reflect a kind of liberation, and a new beginning, the fruit appears white.

One of the freakiest parts of the film, (apart from one nightmarish sequence of a two-headed tiger and its constantly rolling head!) is the marriages of the deaf, dumb and blind where Ashik Kerib is invited to play! Both these ceremonies take place in some unreal, open locations. Especially in the marriage of the deaf and dumb, the minstrel seems to become one of them when he suggests through sign language that he can't speak or hear! Could it be a hidden reference; Parajanov's own reflection on his state of being as a visual artist who felt handicapped owing to the cruel Soviet authorities' and their diktats on his work and subsequent imprisonment? 

After all, the story itself is of a music artist on a forced exile of sorts to please the people at high places! Interestingly, the handicap manifests in a tangible form when Nadir Pasha sends Ashik Kerib to the War-like Sultan! Kerib is shackled in this scene and he says he isn't able to play anymore. While his hands appear to be considerably mobile to at least pluck a note, the strings on his instrument literally appear to be missing, and hence, not being able to produce any music!

As crazy as it may look and sound, you cannot ignore the oeuvre of Sergei Parajanov, an artist unlike any other. Parajanov's methods were the most unusual, and his film outputs were the kind you couldn't possibly club or compare with any other, stylistically or otherwise. It is difficult to fault this film, unless the style itself fails to appeal to the viewer. Those who do find appeal though, would be able to embrace the film's astonishing qualities and soak in its enchanting, mythical universe. A visually ravishing, charming and aurally pleasing musical, "Ashik Kerib" is a sublime work of art that is a fitting swansong, a great ending to a brave career of the man who set new benchmarks in cinema.

Score: 9/10 

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